If I had to nail down last years Netflix offerings when it came to original films I would say disappointing. That isn’t to say some weren’t great (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Annihilation) but most lacked any kind of juice. Most felt like cast offs bought up to fill an empty roster. I’m pleased to say that the first two original films I have seen this year have been far better and deeper than the spattering of rom-coms we got over the summer. With And Breathe Again and Solo, Netflix are announcing themselves as the place for not just foreign cinema but adventurous stories that push boundaries.
Solo tells the story of closed off surfer Álvaro (Alain Hernández), who is drifting through his life, enjoying himself exploring the beaches of Fuerteventura. When he heads out to a secluded beach one day he slips and falls onto the rocks leaving him fighting for his life against the tide, the sun and the birds that are now seeing him as prey. Fighting to survive, he replays past decisions in his head as he thinks about what has brought him to this situation and what, if anything, might get him out.
Although easy to compare to 127 Hours and more recently The Shallows, Solo tries to differentiate itself from this comparison by making this more a tale of regret and coming to terms with your decisions instead of a straight survival saga. It’s this dichotomy that brings life to Álvaro’s true story while weighing it down in unwanted baggage. Much in the same way, the weaker moments of The Shallows are the moments designed to add colour to its characters as they lose sight of the direction of the film. The mistakes and memories of his past although necessary, corrupts the flow of the story and takes away the tension. Director Hugo Stuven is adept at bringing the abject terror of the situation to life and when we take these momentary detours we are forced to suspend our concern, something that proves hard to get back once we return to the action.
However Stuven on the whole shows an impressive affinity to this kind of visceral tale. Not only is his direction precise and well choreographed but the symbolism on display takes your breath away. Stuven proves to be the real star here. Not only his use of wide shots to build this crushing sense of isolation but in the way he shoots the ocean. Not only does he grasp the danger of it but hidden within is the beauty that Álvaro fell in love with. This comparison mirrors the struggle on-screen between survival and giving into the elements. The sea proves vicious and dangerous above but when below, accepting the power of this endless beast, Álvaro is at peace, almost accepting his fate.
It’s this central struggle that proves the strongest thread, the one that once pulled keeps giving and giving. The struggle to survive despite the overwhelming urge to give in matches the conflict between his isolation and the people in his life. The unwelcome flashbacks want to help solidify this point but ultimately they are unnecessary. Much like Álvaro himself, Solo has a fiery personality and the seemless direction makes for a visual spectacle but Stuven relies too heavily on narrative tricks to see him through to the finish line. While not the awe-inspiring film it could have been, Stuven has a promising future and Solo shines just bright enough to be a gem for Netflix in this dry January.